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It may seem nearly suicidal for an attorney who spends much of his time in the federal courts to argue against raising the salaries of federal judges, which is what United States Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. recently recommended to Congress. However, Roberts’ proposal raises the issue of how much we should reward public service, especially that of judges who have great power and prestige. Federal judges received a 1.9% employment cost index raise this year. District judges now earn $165,200 annually, and appellate judges earn $175,100. These are not puny salaries. Plenty of perks And there is more here than meets the eye. Federal judges have job security (lifetime tenure), good office staffs, excellent medical and dental insurance and pension benefits. At age 65, a judge can retire at full salary or take “senior status” and continue to work at a reduced caseload. Judges also have disability and death benefits, judicial expense accounts, vacations, holidays and sick leave. District judges have two top-notch law clerks, who are attorneys, to assist them. Circuit judges have three. They have regular hours, and paid travel to hear cases in different parts of the country. And judges enjoy judicial immunity that protects them from being sued. Not bad. This is a good arrangement for a group of people who enjoy great prestige and power in our country: jurists who make some of the most important decisions in American law, from death penalty cases to products liability claims. Roberts’ 2005 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary argues that even a 30% raise would be insufficient to get federal judges close to what they would earn if they left the bench for private practice. He calls their current pay “a direct threat to judicial independence” because money entices some judges to the private sector. Statistics don’t back argument But the statistics that the chief justice cites are weak. There are 179 appellate judges and 667 district court judges in the federal system. Roberts points out that since 1990, 92 judges have left the bench. Of those, 59 stepped down to enter the private practice of law-that’s about four a year (or 0.5%), hardly a mass defection. I am of the old-fashioned view that so long as federal judges make a comfortable living compared to the rest of us, they should view their job as a public service. If they wish to make more money, they should return to private practice. There is no logic to the idea that taxpayers should pay them what they would make if they were not judges. We don’t accept that argument for other public servants; why do it for judges? And, unlike other public servants, we give judges a very comfortable living, prestige, respect and power. There is a groundless assumption here: Higher pay attracts better judges. And it is just as groundless to argue that judicial independence is somehow threatened because some judges resign to make more money. There is not a shred of evidence for either of these startling propositions. I know scores of highly competent and dedicated attorneys all across the country, many already in public service or nonprofit work, who would make excellent judges and who draw salaries in the range of $50,000 to $80,000. These lawyers may have an even greater sense of the day-to-day struggles of common people than do judges from the politically connected, silk-stocking law firms. But Roberts is not talking about these devoted and decent community servants; he is talking about maintaining a legal system (oligarchy, if you will) that is elitist. More deserving recipients Nowhere does Roberts offer a plea to increase funds for legal services for critically underserved poor and low-income people. Nor does he mention strengthening pro bono programs to encourage highly paid lawyers to do more for poor people. And he is silent about providing funds to shore up the country’s abysmal public defender systems. At a time when Congress is slashing food stamps, Medicaid, education and other assistance for the poor, is the chief justice’s priority to take that money and raise the salaries of judges? Until the chief justice and Congress focus on improving the legal system for all the people, we should leave the salaries of federal judges where they are. Being a federal judge is a great honor and a public service, not an occupation to compensate well-to-do lawyers with what they would earn if they were in private practice. The value of a federal judgeship should be measured by more than just salary. A sense of public purpose will do more to improve our legal system than raising the salaries of judges who already earn five to six times more than the average American-with a benefits package that most people can only dream of. James C. Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation that promotes civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas.

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